Tag Archives: Business

About That Zappa Interview

What matters is the product, and how it connects with fans.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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This animated version of a Frank Zappa interview made the rounds a month or two ago. The first thing to do is to watch it, if you haven’t done so. Be warned, there’s some PG-13 language used.

The whole thing shows just how smart this guy was, and how he understood exactly what we’re actually trying to do in this craft. As such, I want to dig into a number of points and expand them as I have come to understand them.

Not In The Band Anymore

Mr. Zappa opens up by going straight into a really tough point: Why would someone not be in your band anymore? In this case, two reasons are laid out. The first reason is that a player (or, if I dare to synthesize a bit, a crewmember) can’t handle the job. The second possible reason is that a better opportunity came along.

I’ve had the good fortune to come across only a few bands that desperately needed to fire somebody. In the cases where a firing was needed, the situation was often that, despite the need, nobody was getting dismissed. In general, the lack of movement came from the other band members believing that the definition of “good enough” was mostly about a player’s technical ability. I’ve written before about how this isn’t a sufficiently wide-ranging view. There are plenty of musicians and techies with incredible “chops” who are also terrible at being in a band with actual, other people. Maybe they play too loud. Maybe they can’t stop playing, even when it’s some other player’s turn. Maybe they’re just a pain to be around. In any of those cases, the person in question isn’t good enough to be in the band – being part of the group is a necessary skill, and at least as important as being able to play every possible variation of a G-major chord.

The second bit might seem to be more obvious, but I think there’s some hidden meaning within it. Is your band good enough that it produces people who other bands want to hire? Think about that as an aspiration: That your group not only seeks out, but also creates musicians and crew members who become sought after. That’s the mark of a brilliant organization, an organization that improves a music scene just by being there. The very best bands don’t just play killer tunes, but are also economically and organizationally structured for people to do their best work.

The Spirit Of Accomplishment

This connects with the previous sentence. The very best bands, the ones that are platforms for people to do their best work, produce a sense of pride in the group. When the players and crew are giddy with the excitement of standing up and saying, “Check out what WE did,” then you know you’re on the right track. This kind of pride becomes infectious, and beckons others to join in. That’s why Frank could claim that there was no shortage of people willing to put themselves through the rigor of being in his group. The discipline required to execute at the “varsity” level is a natural necessity and not an arbitrary imposition, and good people will readily volunteer for it.

The flipside is that, if truly respected players and techs don’t have much desire to be subjected to the discipline of your organization, you may not actually be varsity level. That might sound a bit harsh, but the good news is that you can start correcting a problem once you’re aware of it.

Adverse Circumstances

Let’s keep going with that “varsity level” metaphor.

Can your band play and sound like itself without top-shelf monitors? Can your band play, even if FOH isn’t being handled well?

Do you have a backup plan if a piece of gear dies?

Can you pull a coherent acoustic set out of your buttocks, if all else fails?

Does your crew have a contingency for getting through the gig, even if a major piece of gear vomits all over itself? Do they have, somewhere in their minds, the ability to downgrade all the way to a vocals and/ or priority-instruments only mix? Can they do it without thinking about it for more than a few minutes?

If not, it’s time to do some thinking. There’s no shame in not being at this level immediately. Shoot for it, though.

The Dictatorship

Some productions can function as full democracies. Some can work as partial democracies. Some require an out-and-out monarch. No matter what, though, all shows require that there be a singular someone where the buck stops. THE point of contact. The person (or entity) that “signs the checks.”

You might think that being the point-person means that your primary duty is to give as many instructions as possible. This is incorrect. In a band that enables disciplined people to do their best work, the leader barely has to give instructions at all. The job of the king is to make the big-picture decisions while ensuring the well-being of the folks who are led. If the group is actually a well-honed production unit, then people will know their jobs and do them without being continuously prodded.

The check-writer certainly has authority. The check-writer certainly does give orders. The check-writer certainly does hire and fire. All these things do not exist for themselves, however. These natural authorities are in place so that the check-writer/ dictator/ king/ chief/ grand poo-bah can create an environment where as many people as is practicable are able to execute their craft at the highest level that is possible. If those authorities are used for some other purpose, such as the growth of an individual’s ego and power-mania, then a person’s exit from the group is both justified and praiseworthy.

(In the case of Frank Zappa, I’d be willing to bet that he used his authority properly. Some folks just can’t handle the idea of someone else being in charge, though, and they will “select out” no matter how good the band is.)

The Product

The apex of all this is to provide a product. In the case of a concert, the product is an integrated experience that takes the audience on a ride that they couldn’t otherwise go on. The experience is a union of parts that creates a gestalt greater than those parts. The better the gestalt experience, the more that product connects with an audience’s emotions, the more in-demand (and well paid) the band is likely to be.

That concept of “wholeness” is very important. Wholeness comes from supporting an impeccable foundation. Performances that ultimately fill venues are not, in any way, about just sticking a bunch of improved “production blocks” together. Some groups, for instance, end up chasing after a bunch of lighting or audio gear in the belief that snappier “technicals” will win a bigger crowd. This is not the case, however, because just making something flashier does not mean that the core, emotional ride is one that the public wants to go on.

The ride starts with the basics of the song.

A better arrangement gives the song more engaging sonic textures and pathways.

Better audio production translates the first two elements into the audience more readily.

Better lighting acknowledges and accents the journey of the song.

Better staging makes all the previous elements work more smoothly and naturally.

If the core isn’t all that great, though, then plugging in a giant lighting system and a PA that can call elephants from halfway around the world isn’t going to do squat.

There is a blues, funk, soul, and rock-n-roll band from around these parts that came through my former gig for about five years. When I started working with them, we had minimal lighting. Because of issues with stage acoustics, we basically ran without subwoofers. Do you know how many people complained about those things? Zero, that I can remember. Also, the gigs with less production? They were just as full as the later, better-produced shows. People appreciated what was added on, but they wouldn’t have cared if the fundamental experience had been lackluster.

Somewhere near you, tonight, a big-production gig with all kinds of flash and flair will be less than half-full. A few miles away, a singer-songwriter with an acoustic guitar, a couple of small speakers on sticks, and no lighting to speak of will have a line around the block. There are all kinds of reasons that might be the case, but consider that all the gear money could buy didn’t guarantee a capacity crowd for show #1.

…and this pulls us all the way back around to the start. Musicians and crew who are not making the holistic product better, for whatever reason, need to go somewhere else. The cliche of the fans being what matters is around for a reason. The fans are who ultimately enable the writing of checks. If some member of the group is fixated on some aspect of the production that is dragging down the gestalt experience for the fans, then that group member needs to be corrected. If they can’t be corrected, it’s time for them to find some other group. No matter how much they know, or how much they can do, they aren’t good enough to be in the band.


Music Is So Much More Than Recordings

A Schwilly guest post.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Before anyone could even begin to think of selling something as antiquated as a physical record, there were centuries upon centuries of successful and unsuccessful musicians.”


The entire article is available (free!) at Schwilly Family Musicians.


The Rise And Fall Of A Small Venue – Part 5

Sometimes, no matter how hard you fight, you still lose.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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If you’re looking to boil it down, Fats mostly died because someone else owned the building and land it sat on.

For months before the closure, we knew something was going to happen. Mishell had been told that the building was going to go away, but hadn’t been told precisely when. As I’ve mentioned before, this was not a lady who was about to go down without a major battle. As such, Mishell started looking for a new spot.

Compromise was not on the table. We were going to keep live-music going, or die in the attempt. This raised the difficulty factor considerably, because it meant that we needed a lot of space, and the right kind of space. It meant that we were NOT going to downsize. It meant that getting a move set up would take an enormous pile of time, money, and effort. We figured that we had until the spring to make it all work.

But all kinds of problems started to pile up. The stress mounted to epic proportions. And, with buildings, there’s always something. In our case, you could find a place you wanted…only to realize that the required fire-suppression system (which would be required for a new tenant) didn’t exist. Adding a fire-sprinkler system to a building is a five to six-figure affair, so landlords assiduously avoid it/ stall it/ ignore it/ dance around it. Fats, by the way, had been sprinklered on Mario and Mishell’s dime – not the landlord’s. There was no way they were going to get roped into that again, and talking a building owner into doing something that major takes some time.

As I said, we figured that we had until spring to make it all work. After all, it wasn’t likely that a demolition team was going to come by and dig in a bunch of frozen dirt.

December rolled around, and we got the news: The building was coming down in January, winter cold or no winter cold. Out of time, out of options, and exhausted from carrying Fats along, Mishell had to let the business go.


Americans have a cultural myth that we cling to. It’s the myth that working your tail off guarantees “success.” Anyone who isn’t successful, then, must not be working hard enough.

We speak this myth to ourselves because we are a frightened people. This fear is not conscious. Our terror lives, quietly, deep in the base of our psyches. It is the masked and hooded figure which quietly whispers, “Disaster may visit anyone.” Without realizing what we’re doing, we hold our torch against the muttering abyss and chant, “Disaster visits those who make the wrong choices. I am making good choices. The bad things can’t happen to me. I am working hard. I’m not like those people. I’m going to be okay.”

But our pitiful torches are very easily snuffed out, a tired hiss and wisp of smoke leaving us in the frigid black. Your choices and your effort may not be enough.

The truth is that everybody at Fats did their jobs. In the end, I can’t personally think of some metaphorical lever that would have saved the place that we just weren’t willing to pull. Mishell ran herself into the ground for the venue. I certainly feel that I put in the time and prep necessary to do shows the right way. I’m not saying that we were perfect; I AM saying that laziness wasn’t a problem for us.

You may run as fast as you know how and still not win the race.

Yet hope remains when, after that sigh of defeat, other torches spring up in the night, their owners walking toward each other. The fire-carriers speak to one-another of the myth, in words like those of Seth Godin: “If it doesn’t work, we should stop telling ourselves that it does.”


The photo above is what I saw when I went downstairs the day after our final, mainstage show. Mario had started the tearout earlier in the morning. Our small-but-mighty stage was now officially retired. The light and sound of that place were now muted, but if I dare say it, the echoes of every note played in the room continued to ring.

The tearout of the mainstage was a poignant bookend to my time at Fats Grill. It was an “in reverse” throwback to the old days, when Mario and I would have those great conversations while show prep was going on. There we were, at work again, except now our purpose was to disconnect and remove everything salvageable. I had brought my checkbook to purchase some of the items that Fats owned. Mario refused to take my money, and let me have anything I wanted.

Mario himself uttered what I think was the definitive statement of that moment:

“Every cable we pulled out was unraveling the mystery of Danny.”

There wasn’t a single thing in that room, down to an adapter, mic clip, or lighting clamp, that didn’t have a story. Everything had been put in a piece at a time, with a specific purpose as we grew and refined the production for the basement. There wasn’t so much as a screw that didn’t have a measurable quantity of our lives in it. Every mic, whether it made it out alive or not, carries some part of the history of Fats.

It’s a history shared with many people, and with both love & luck, it might be that the history of Fats is now merely the opening act of another story. I hope so.

See you around, Fats. We sure will miss you.

danny-lanyard


The Rise And Fall Of A Small Venue – Part 4

Everything tried to kill Fats, but tenacious ownership kept it alive.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Everybody hated the giant patch of nothing that was next door to Fats. A testament to the economic catastrophe of 2008, the “Sugarhole” was a titanic wound in the middle of Sugarhouse. Buildings had been torn down in advance of a giant “renewal” project that had ground to a tooth-scraping halt. When the project finally got back underway, there were smiles all around. If the old Sugarhouse had to be no more, it should at least be no more with a new, shiny development in place. Something to look at, you know.

As the new building went up, Mario started running numbers in his head. The grand, rejuvenated Sugarhouse center would be a mixed-use affair, with condos sitting atop commercial space. Mario figured out that just 2% of the occupants, visiting twice a month, would change Fats forever.

We would have to live through the construction project first, though.

As the build got into full swing, the problems began. Small disruptions have enormous effects upon small businesses. You might not think that a minor inconvenience to vehicle traffic would be a big deal, but it’s a near-lethal poison to the local shop. As the area around Highland Drive got more difficult to traverse, the consequences were definitely non-trivial. As formerly reliable parking was chewed up by contractor personnel, people found other places to be.

Daytime sales dried up.

Mishell went to war.

Fats and everybody in it were basically Mishell’s other baby. Messing with somebody’s kid is a surefire way to get into a no-holds-barred battle, and somebody was messing with Mishell’s kid. Month after exhausting month, she did battle with accounts, landlords, slipping sales, Utah’s bizarre liquor regulations, equipment failures, and plumbing problems, all while keeping on top of booking shows. She found an advocate with the city to try to bring Fats through the construction problems. It was revealed to us that, adjacent to projects like the one taking place a few hundred feet north, 80% of local businesses bail out or just flatly fail. Mishell was determined, come hell or high-water, that we would be in the 20% column.

As the project reached its completion, we all started to breathe a sigh of relief. Maybe we had made it. Maybe we were about to see the revitalization that comes from a bunch of new, urban-minded people being on the block.

The sigh of relief was interrupted as though all the air in the city had been blown away into space. As the new eateries and brew-pubs opened, our lot was again jammed to the gills…with people going other places. The promised revitalization WAS happening, but not for Fats and the other longtime tenants. If you were inside the footprint of the new development, business was booming. If you were outside that footprint and merely in the shadow of that “leading-edge,” high-density monstrosity, you were invisible.

And yet, we were NOT out of business. Our people still came in when they could. The shows continued without interruption.

Oh, and when the shifts were over at those “johnny-come-lately” places? When their workers were done and needed to unwind? I’ll give you one guess as to where they went for a beer and some tasty eatings. That’s right.

Fats was covered with battle scars. Fats was struggling. Troubles and challenges loomed over that brick-walled, Sugarhouse shoebox like a thunderstorm ready to drop a torrent. Fats, though, was still standing, and Mishell simply refused to quit.


There was a point where Fats changed how bands were paid. We started out on the guarantee model, where a band is compensated with a set amount of money for appearing. It’s a simple, well-liked setup that keeps things easy, but it’s also financially challenging. For a bar to pay a guarantee, that guarantee has to basically be surplus. It means that a predictable amount of business will be done by the bar on any given night, and that the band is meant to be a sort of “garnish” on that revenue stream. The party is already going to be in the room; The band will make the party last longer.

If the bar’s business is UN-predictable, however, running a guarantee system becomes a huge liability. If the public only shows up for the bands they specifically want to see and hear, you can only pay guarantees to bands that establish a track-record of drawing a crowd. For everybody else, you have to pay a percentage. If you don’t, the venue runs its cash reserves into the toilet, and the doors close.

Mishell was not about to shut down the basement venue, so we moved to a percentage system.

Some people were very upset, and I can understand why. Whenever we feel like something is being taken away, we humans tend to take it badly. There were folks who simply couldn’t afford to play Fats gigs anymore, and we understood. If a band needs to play “guarantee” gigs as part of its business model, that’s just the way it is. There was nobody at Fats who couldn’t respect that.

What got me pretty “hot,” though, was when a few folks wanted to paint Mario and Mishell as being “disrespectful” to musicians by instituting the percentage system. There was zero disrespect involved, I assure you.

To start with, real disrespect of musicians is promising one thing and then delivering another. At no point was anyone intentionally promised guaranteed pay, and then (also intentionally) switched to a percentage when things weren’t working out at the bar. A small minority of gigs were still done on the basis of a guarantee, and there were a few issues of misunderstanding or miscommunication, yes, but there was no “intention” involved. I was never, EVER told to short a band so that Fats would make a few more bucks. Mishell had far too much respect for players to do something like that. Also, the transition to the percentage system was done slowly, and with quite a bit of open discussion. There was no bait-n-switch involved.

Real disrespect of musicians is asking someone to play for free. Mishell never asked anyone to play for free, that I was ever aware of. Someone might argue that percentage pay can result in playing for free (or so little as to be effectively playing for free), but that’s not disrespect. What that ACTUALLY comes down to is simple misfortune. Disrespect is making a bad promise, and then expecting people to like it.

Let me dig into that a bit.

Band pay at a bar has a left side, and a right side. The left side is the bar’s revenue, and the right side is the multiplier on that revenue for band pay. When musicians are being hugely disrespected, the right side multiplier is dropped to zero. This is commonly expressed as “the gig will be great exposure!” It looks like this:

Bar Revenue (maybe big, maybe little, who knows) X 0 (Exposure! Experience! Good vibes!) = 0.

In the case of the entirely respectful, pre-arranged percentage, the multiplier is held constant. Nobody is being asked to play for free. They’re being asked to accept that there’s a risk that the math won’t result in a big pile of money. They’re being asked to be in the same boat as the club. Here’s how the math looks:

Bar Revenue X Fixed Percentage That Was Agreed Upon = Some number, which is never intended to be zero (but could be, if things go very badly).

Mishell had far too much respect for musicians to float the idea that the right-side multiplier should be zero.

Beyond that…

We had so much respect for musicians that we left the stage-extensions up, even when Floyd Show wasn’t playing, so that everybody could have more space.

Mario and Mishell had so much respect for musicians that they effectively backed me on my hair-brained scheme to build a computerized mixing console – a console that let us do all kinds of cool things, like multitrack shows with a button-push, and beat difficult monitor situations into something that resembled submission.

Mario and Mishell had so much respect for musicians that they remodeled the basement into a “small but mighty” venue, a venue which elicited praise from players with decades of experience in tons of different rooms.

Mario and Mishell had so much respect for musicians that they paid me more than they could easily afford (for years and years), so that bands playing at their venue would be guaranteed a tech who actually cared about what was going on.

We had so much respect for the musicians that we kept adding more and more production to the venue. In the end, we had a tastefully designed (if I do say so myself) light show with movers and haze, along with an eight-mix monitor rig on deck. We wanted the shows to be as much fun as they could possibly be.

Mishell had so much respect for musicians that she continued to pay for print-ads about live music at Fats.

Mishell had so much respect for musicians that, in the face of all the troubles and struggles that beset Fats, the basement stayed open, weekend after weekend, all the way to the end.

Musicians might not have gotten rich from playing at Fats, but they were always respected there.


Keeping Your Publishing – 21st Century Style

A guest-post for Schwilly Family Musicians

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“…If the record company owned both the sound recording AND the rights to the underlying song, you really had nothing except whatever fame you had managed to scrape up. All the money involved in anything to do with your tunes would first go to the record company, and then they would cut you in later – likely for as little as they could get away with.

Keeping your publishing meant keeping some control. Having a say somewhere. Owning your intellectual property instead of just being allowed to represent it.

That’s why you should have your own website. Having a web presence that you own and pay for is a 21st-century, internet-enabled version of keeping your publishing…”


The whole article is available (for free!) at Schwilly Family Musicians.


So What About The Gross?

A guest post for Schwilly Family Musicians

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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Sorry for my lack of updates lately. I have a new day-gig, and it’s chewing up time like nobody’s business.

Anyway – from the article:

“Our business loves to talk about the highest grossing tours. Gossip about who had the biggest ticket revenue is everywhere, and treated as being very important.

And it makes sense.

The gross is a really decent way to measure things like audience interest and performer clout, especially when you bring other measurements into the equation…

…The thing is, there’s a question that seems to go unasked and unanswered with all of our hoopla over the gross:

What did the show net?”


The whole thing is available for free, right here.


A Statistics-Based Case Against “Going Viral” As A Career Strategy

Going viral is neat, but you can’t count on it unless you can manage to do it all the time.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Going viral is not a business plan.” -Jackal Group CEO Gail Berman

There are plenty of musicians (and other entrepreneurs, not just in the music biz) out there who believe that all they need is “one big hit.” If they get that one big hit, then they will have sustained success at a level that’s similar to that of the breakthrough.

But…

Have you ever heard of a one-hit wonder? I thought so. There are plenty to choose from: Bands and brands that did one thing that lit up the world for a while, and then faded back into obscurity.

Don’t get me wrong. When something you’ve created really catches on, it’s a great feeling. It DOES create momentum. It IS helpful for your work. It IS NOT enough, though, to guarantee long-term viability. It’s a nice bit of luck, but it’s not a business plan in any sense I would agree with.

Why? Because of an assumption which I think is correct.

Consistency

In my mind, two hallmarks of a viable, long-term, entrepreneurial strategy are:

A) You avoid being at the mercy of the public’s rapidly-shifting attention.

B) Your product, and its positive effect on your business, are consistent and predictable.

Part A disqualifies “going viral” as a core strategy because going viral rests tremendously upon the whims of the public. It’s so far out of your control (as an individual creator), and so unpredictable that it can’t be relied on. It’s as if you were to try farming land where the weather was almost completely random – one day of rain, then a tornado, then a month of scorching heat, then an hour of hail, then a week of arctic freeze, then two days of sun, then…

You might manage to grow something if you got lucky, but you’d be much more likely to starve to death.

Part B connects to Part A. If you can produce a product every day, but you can’t meaningfully predict what kind of revenue it will generate, you don’t have a basis for a business. If your product is completely at the mercy of the public’s attention-span, and will only help you if the public goes completely mad over it, you are standing on very shaky ground. Sure, you may get a surge in popularity, but when will that surge come? Will it be long-term? A transient hit will not keep you afloat. It can give you a nice infusion of cash. It can give you something to build on. It can be capitalized on, but it can’t be counted on.

A viable business rests on things that can be counted on, and this is where the statistics come in. If I reduce my opinion to a single statement, I come up with this:

Long-term business viability is found within one standard deviation, if it’s found at all.

Now, what in blazes does that mean?

One Sigma

When we talk about a “normal distribution,” we say that a vast majority of what we can expect to find – almost all of it, in fact – will be between plus/ minus two standard deviations. A standard deviation is represented as “sigma,” and is a measure of variation. If you release ten songs, and all of them get between 90 and 110 listens every day, then there’s not much variation in their popularity. The standard deviation is small. If you release ten songs, and one of them gets 10,000 listens per day, another gets 100, another gets 20, and so on all over the map, then standard deviation is large. There are wild variations in popularity from song to song.

When I say that “Long-term business viability is found within one standard deviation, if it’s found at all,” what I’m saying is that strategy has to be built on things you can reasonably expect. It’s true that you might have an exceptionally bad day here and there, and you might also have an exceptionally good day, but you can’t build your business on either of those two things. You have to look at what is probably going to happen the majority of the time.

Do I have some examples? You bet!

I once ran a heavily subsidized (we wouldn’t have made it otherwise) venue that admitted all-ages. When it was all over and the dust settled, I did some number crunching. Our average revenue per show was $77. The standard deviation in show revenue was $64. That’s an enormous spread in value. Just one standard deviation in either direction covered a range of revenue from $13 to $141. With a variation that enormous, the only long term strategy would have been to stay subsidized. Not much money was made, and “duds” were plenty common.

We can also look at the daily traffic for this site. In fact, it’s a great example because I recently had an article go viral. My post about why audio humans get so bent out of shape when a mic is cupped took off like a rocket. During the course of the article’s major “viralness” (that might not be a real word, but whatever), this site got 110,000 views. If you look at the same length of time just before the article was published, the site got 373 views.

That’s a heck of an outlier. Even if we keep that outlier in the data and let it push things off to the high side, the average view-count per day is 162, with a standard deviation of over 2000. In that case, the very peak of the article’s viral activity is +22 standard deviations (holy smoke!) from the mean.

I can’t build a business on that. I can’t predict based on that. I can’t assume that anything else will ever do that well. I would never have dreamed that particular article would catch fire as it did. There are plenty of posts on this site that I consider more interesting, yet didn’t have that kind of popularity. The public made their decision, and I didn’t expect it.

It was really cool to go viral, and it did help me out. However, I have not been “crowned king of show production sites,” or anything like that. My day to day traffic is higher than it was before, but my life and the site’s life haven’t fundamentally changed. The day to day is back to normal, and normal is what I can think about in the long-term. This doesn’t mean I can’t dream big, or take an occasional risk – it just means that my expectations have to be in the right place: About one standard deviation. (Actually, less than that.)


A Public Decision

The public may or may not treat a place in accordance with what an establishment is called, or what that establishment looks like.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I’ve talked about this before. It’s a theme that I’ve returned to in various places. I’m covering it again because I think that it could do with having its own space. I find it to be especially relevant when the “periodic wave of blaming” comes back around to the idea that venues don’t promote live-music enough. I’ve covered that idea from different angles, with my current favorite approach being to point out that advertising is primarily for people who are already interested in something. (For instance, it makes sense to run broadcast-media ads for cars if you’re selling in the United States, because people in the USA are very likely to be car drivers.)

More to the point is pushing back against the idea that a place which hosts live-music can just decide to be a place where there’s a ton of “walk up” traffic. What I mean by “walk up traffic” is the phenomenon of people going to a public establishment for the establishment itself, rather than because a particular event is taking place at the location. The former is the traditional model for a bar, and the latter is the traditional model for a live-music venue. The point of consternation is the unspoken assumption that the public is magically compelled to abide by whatever label that the establishment has chosen for itself. If the public must accept that label, then the business not experiencing patronage consistent with that label must mean that the business is doing something wrong. If the business is doing something wrong, then getting something different to happen is just a matter of fixing whatever has gone awry. (The attitude seems to be that a proprietor can just advertise their way out of a difficulty.)

But this is not what my experience suggests. Over the past several years, I have come to strongly believe that the establishment’s chosen label is irrelevant in the face of what the public decides. Obviously, a business that is very strongly geared in one way or another will tend to be perceived in accordance with the setup. However, the lines are not always sharp and bright. Especially when an establishment has mixed methods for generating income, it can be easy to misjudge the primary view that the public takes of the business.

Is This A Music Place With A Drinking Service?

In the case of a bar or club, there are two major categories that the public can assign:

1) A place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an additional service.

2) A place for music that offers drinking and socialization as an additional service.

Whatever ends up being the primary pull to get folks in the door is what the establishment becomes. If the public’s consciousness labels a place as being a hangout – a spot you go to because it’s just generally fun to go there – then that’s how the business will operate. People just show up, and so booking live music is an exercise in figuring out what will keep the “walk-ups” in the building for a longer time. Flip that around, and the ballgame is very different. If the public decides that the business is a music venue that just happens to serve refreshments, then booking live music becomes the process of figuring out which bands draw a crowd. After that gets settled, the food and drink equation is worked to maximize what the already-drawn crowd will buy.

Different bands thrive in different environments. Groups that are more about getting paid for musicianship tend to be better served by a “hangout” model, whereas groups that are built on nurturing their own specific audience are more suited to a straight-up music venue.

Research Beats Assumptions

Where this becomes hairy is when assumptions are made. There are plenty of bands out there who are content to accept the designation that was originally applied by the proprietors, or the label that the band thinks is applicable. This can be a kind of self-deception. There are musicians who look at a place with a prominent bar, and immediately assume that the place runs on a walk-up traffic model. Remember, though, that the public has the final say. If the public has decided that the business is a music venue that happens to offer tasty food and cool beverages, they are unlikely to just show up to see what’s going on. Rather, they will stay home (or go somewhere else) until their favored band is booked in the room. THEN they’ll show up.

I suppose that a natural question to answer is how to tell one business from another. One starting point is to try to determine the focus regarding the band. A place with lots of production support (and/ or a stage that makes the band the focal point of the room) has a high chance of being treated as a music venue. A place where everything except music seems to be the focal point has a good probability of being perceived as a hangout. You have to couple this with a business query, though, because it’s possible for an establishment to be set up one way while the public treats it the opposite way. If you ask how many folks show up regularly on a particular night of the week, and get a firm number, then you might just be dealing with a place for drinking and socialization that offers music as an extra. (Geography matters of course, as well as whether or not there’s some kind of “house band” involved.) If your question returns an answer with a lot of variance, or just a general lack of certainty, you probably have a “music venue” on your hands.

In the end, the trick is to know how the public treats the business, and what works for you.


Don’t Do It

These kinds of events don’t benefit you. They benefit someone else at your expense.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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“Battles of the Bands” and “Pay to Play” are not the answer.

They are a question.

“No” is the answer.


Eggs, Baskets, And Such

If all your eggs are in one basket, and that basket seems to be going nowhere, it might be time to escape the basket.

Please Remember:

The opinions expressed are mine only. These opinions do not necessarily reflect anybody else’s opinions. I do not own, operate, manage, or represent any band, venue, or company that I talk about, unless explicitly noted.

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I’m not exactly the biggest fan of the financial industry. The prevailing culture at the high levels of that business just rubs me the wrong way. However, this does not mean that applicable philosophies can’t come from them. To wit: Diversification.

Diversification of investment helps to shield you from market misfortunes. If you have all your money tied up in a traditional media company, and traditional media tanks, you’re going to be in real trouble. If you have some money in traditional media, some in tech, some in bonds (and so on), traditional media getting hammered won’t sink you outright.

It’s the same in terms of a music career. If absolutely everything is riding on a single, narrow specialization, you can face metric-tons worth of frustration and misfortune if that specialization isn’t “the in thing.” On the other hand, being able to fill multiple roles provides a bit of insurance. The more the roles differ from each other, the more insurance you have – and the currently fashionable skilset may just subsidize an unfashionable one.

Sometimes Problems Are You, And Sometimes They Aren’t

A barrier that some of us have to understanding this (I certainly have it, so I’m preaching to myself here), is the idea that things will always get better if we keep our heads down, do the work, and just wait things out.

You might want to ask how the horse-drawn carriage business is doing with that mentality.

Sure, there are still horse-drawn carriages, but they’re nothing more than a curiosity when compared to mechanized transport. It’s not a problem with cyclical fashions. It’s not a problem with horse-drawn carriage builders not having a great work ethic. It’s a problem with very few people needing or wanting a horse-drawn carriage anymore.

If our eggs are in some sort of metaphorical basket, a real bit of smarts is being able to determine when that basket just isn’t going to travel anymore. If the basket’s going nowhere, and it’s not in our power to make the basket go somewhere, we need to seek a different basket.

For example, I don’t think the “major, flagship, music-only recording facility” basket possesses any real momentum anymore. This is not to say that large studios for music production won’t continue to exist. They will, but they will continue to become more and more a luxury curiosity. With much of their capability having been computerized and miniaturized, the big studio with the large-frame console is far less necessary than before. This is why I personally don’t want to invest much in a large-studio-centric career. It’s not a good bet on average. The industry’s need for flagship music studios has dropped dramatically, and no amount of hustle, advertising, or longer work hours will change that.

This kind of thing also happens with bands and musicians. There are players out there who are locked into niche specializations:

“All I play is black metal.”

“We never do covers.”

“No solo projects allowed.”

“If we can’t be as loud as we want, we won’t play.”

These are just archetypes, of course, but you get the idea. I think you might also be able to see the potential problems.

If people in the area don’t want to go to black metal shows, it doesn’t matter how much you practice or how much marketing you do.

If there’s a great gig that would make your band real money, but requires covers, you’re outta luck.

If band members can’t pursue their own projects, and the band just isn’t “sparking,” they’re being denied other opportunities to have real careers in the business.

If the band is only really appropriate for enormous venues and giant festivals, you’re missing out on all kinds of other places to play – and this is a big deal if you’re not yet super-famous.

In contrast, the folks who are able to do lots of different things, at lots of different times, and in lots of different places are much less limited. I’m not suggesting that everybody has to be good at everything, but I am suggesting that it’s good to find a variety of things that your natural talents connect to. Even though the actual disciplines can be surprisingly different (like live-audio and recording), a lot of the basic concepts and terminology can transfer. Diversification isn’t trivial, but I don’t think it always has to be a monumental struggle, either.

We’re all limited, but imposing additional, artificial limits on ourselves can make us overly reliant on the world being in tune with exactly how we are. If we can diversify, we probably should.